The coronavirus pandemic halted the NBA season four months ago, the equivalent of an entire offseason. It is easy to forget where everyone left off, let alone what has changed since we last saw NBA basketball. In order to get you up to speed before the July 30 season re-opening slate at Walt Disney World in Orlando, we will be reviewing and previewing each of the 22 teams scheduled to participate.
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Where were the Indiana Pacers?
Place: Fifth in the East
Absent rising star Victor Oladipo, the Indiana Pacers managed to remain in the middle of the Eastern Conference pack, thanks in large part to the arrival of free-agent signing Malcolm Brogdon and the ascendence of first-year All-Star Domantas Sabonis. Their pick-and-roll partnership anchored an offense good enough for a top-10 defense to win more games than not. Coach Nate McMillan continues to get the most out of the front office’s smart, low-cost signings, signs of an established overachieving culture.
Oladipo returned from his knee injury on a minutes restriction in late January, clearly showing rust from his yearlong layoff. That rust showed signs of fading in his 13th and final game before the break, when he scored 27 points on 16 shots in 29 minutes against the Boston Celtics. It was an indication that Indiana may actually approach something close to optimum performance come playoff time, a hope now fading.
Who’s in and who’s out?
Out: Victor Oladipo (knee), Jeremy Lamb (knee)
It is still unclear whether Oladipo will actually play in Orlando. He went from a wait-and-see approach to opting out of the restart and back to a wait-and-see approach, seemingly motivated by the roughly $3 million on the line for him if he opts in. The two-time All-Star is expected to participate in scrimmages following an encouraging training camp performance, with a final decision on his availability still to come.
We do know the Pacers will be without Jeremy Lamb, who started at shooting guard in Oladipo’s absence before tearing his ACL in February. Once considered a bust, Lamb had found his niche as a tertiary creator — a guy who could provide a spark off the bench in the playoffs. He leaves a hole that is more easily filled by the Holiday brothers, Justin and Aaron, and the Pacers may actually be better for it.
UPDATE: Sabonis left Orlando on Friday after reportedly suffering a “significant” foot injury, potentially ending his season. Prior to leaving, he had missed a week of practice with plantar fasciitis. McMillan told reporters on Saturday, “There’s a bruise there,” and Sabonis is undergoing treatment in Los Angeles. His absence puts a greater onus on Myles Turner in a shallow frontcourt and considerably lowers their ceiling.
NBA Finals odds: +5000
Championship odds: +12500
Handed an expanded role in Oladipo’s stead after three seasons as a supporting actor on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks, Brogdon was playing at an All-Star level until mid-December, when he was averaging a 20-5-8 on 48/36/93 shooting splits — an almost expected dip in efficiency from last year’s 50/40/90 campaign, given his increased workload. Hand, hamstring and back injuries made for a stop-and-go rest of the season, and his efficiency dipped significantly in the months since his hot start.
Oladipo’s health is an obvious X-factor, but Brogdon was also sidelined by a torn left quadriceps just before the hiatus. He was also diagnosed with COVID-19 upon reporting back to the Pacers last month, and while he has been cleared to return from both, it will be interesting to see how close to peak form he actually is. Injury concerns are what sent him into the second round of the 2016 draft, after all. The potential for a Brogdon-Oladipo backcourt is high, a pair of strong, sound guards who can create for and complement each other well, but the Pacers cannot have one without the other if they hope to contend.
It will also be fascinating to see how Brogdon emerges from Orlando as a leader among NBA players. Nicknamed “The President” for his thoughtful and powerful voice, Brogdon was at the forefront among players participating in protests to progress social justice. His impassioned speech at a rally in Atlanta, followed by an op-ed for USA Today, showed he could be an agent for change both on and off the court.
(All times Eastern)
Aug. 1: Philadelphia 76ers, 7 p.m.
Aug. 3: Washington Wizards, 4 p.m.
Aug. 4: Orlando Magic, 6 p.m.
Aug. 6: Phoenix Suns, 4 p.m.
Aug. 8: Los Angeles Lakers, 6 p.m. (TNT)
Aug. 10: Miami Heat, 8 p.m.
Aug. 12: Houston Rockets, 4 p.m. (NBATV)
Aug. 14: Miami Heat, TBD
Having lost in the first round of the playoffs each of the previous four seasons, the Pacers had hoped Brogdon would propel them into the later rounds, despite the losses of Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young and others to free agency. Circumstances largely beyond their control made for early playoff exits. The goal remained the same, so long as Oladipo and Brogdon were operating at a high level, especially once Sabonis pushed fellow big man Myles Turner into a more appropriate complementary role.
Their ceiling, along with the Holidays and reclamation projects T.J. Warren and Doug McDermott, keeps them in a conversation with the Celtics, Toronto Raptors, Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat as threats to the Bucks in the East. Remember, a lesser team pushed LeBron James to a seven-game series in 2018. Still, it is hard to imagine Indiana sustaining that level for three rounds in a more competitive East.
The Pacers’ season-reopening game against the Philadelphia 76ers could very well decide their fate, as they currently hold a tiebreaker that gives them the fifth seed over the Sixers. Falling into sixth place, where the Celtics await as a likely first-round opponent, would severely limit their ability to make noise.
Yahoo Sports NBA prediction
Place: Sixth in the East
Finish: First-round loss
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